As another season comes to a close, Manchester United find themselves in a European final for the first time since the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2011. However, the road from then to now has been anything but smooth. Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, United have gone from perennial Premier League Title favorites to a fringe top 4 team. With the arrival of Jose Mourinho and superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, many fans saw this season as the one that would show the world United were well and truly back. However, after a promising start to the season, the wheels quickly came off and many feared the worst after a dismal display against a dominant and electrifying Chelsea team. The question quickly turned from, “Will United win the title?” to, “Will United even get back into the Champions League?” Although the team has improved since the beginning of the year, United still sit in sixth and the season ultimately boils down to the Europa League Final against a young, gung-ho Ajax side in Stockholm later this May.
A win would put United back into the Champions League while a loss would be a devastating blow to the club and a major set back. On paper, the Reds are overwhelming favorites in the final but as the season has proved, United have struggled in dispatching sides. If United are to win, they will need to put in a disciplined but clinical performance against a side that will be open and for the taking. The Europa League, in addition to the League Cup, would be a nice prize to a frankly average season and would also complete United’s trophy cabinet. Assuming United do prevail, it is clear Mourinho and Manchester United must make some major changes in order to launch a legitimate title challenge and make a deep run in the Champions League.
This upcoming transfer window seems bigger than any other window in recent history and in addition to revamping the style of play, here are some moves I think United should look into if they are to get back to where they belong.
Looking at United’s record in the Premier League, the staggering amount of draws stands out more than anything else. Points dropped this season at home against teams like West Ham, Swansea, West Brom, Stoke, Bournemouth and Hull due to woeful finishing have certainly derailed United’s top 4 and title hopes. In comparison to newly crowned champions Chelsea, Manchester United have created nearly 50 more chances but have scored 25 goals less. Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored a respectable 28 goals this season, a player of his calibre should have scored close to 40 given some of his chances. Moreover, players like Martial and Mkhitaryan have had very inconsistent seasons and have not found the same goal scoring form of last season. Already in need of firepower up-front, all reports show Ibrahimovic moving on due to his lengthy injury and Wayne Rooney departing in search of more consistent playing time. While Rashford has hit some good form over the past couple of weeks and his pace adds a new dynamic to the United attack, he still is not ready to lead the line for Manchester United at this moment. Traditionally, Mourinho has built his teams with a strong and powerful lone striker. Perhaps the perfect target for United is Everton’s Romelu Lukaku who has bagged an impressive 24 goals this season. Although Lukaku could not find success with Mourinho in his first spell at Chelsea, a reunion at Old Trafford may just be the big move Lukaku has been craving. In addition to Lukaku, some other attractive strikers include Torino’s Andrea Belotti and Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata. Belotti has been sensational for an otherwise average Torino side and the club’s president has already ruled out a potential move to any Italian team opening the door for United to swoop in. On the other hand, Morata has struggled to find regular playing time but has shown his quality in his limited minutes. Morata has scored some big goals that have helped Madrid edge their way to a potential first league title in 5 years and has scored more non penalty goals in La Liga as ex-Manchester United player and current Balon D’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo. However even more impressive is that his goals to minute ratio is only second to the current top scorer, Lionel Messi. All three strikers have the ability to hold up the play and guarantee 20-25 league goals and United could not go wrong with any of the three strikers. However, given that they all have roughly the same price tag, Lukaku seems the best fit given his familiarity with the Premier League. Moreover, Rashford is an excellent option to bring off the bench and can be used to rotate the main striker. Lastly, Mourinho should explore the possibility of brining back fan-favorite Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Chicharito’s excellent poaching ability may give United the edge in tight games and push the Reds over the line.
In addition to the striker, Mourinho must be searching for more production out of his wide forwards. After a strong debut season, Anthony Martial has been a shadow of himself. Henrikh Mkhitaryan similarly has been unable to capture the form that saw him win PTOY in the Bundesliga last season. Both have struggled with issues whether it be personal dilemmas or injuries but it can’t be denied that they have immense qualities. However, I would not be surprised to see Mourinho go after a direct and creative wide player. One option may be AS Monaco’s Bernardo Silva who has had an amazing season and helped Monaco proceed to the UCL semifinals and likely a Ligue 1 title as well. However, my personal pick would be for Mourinho and Ed Woodward to make a serious push for Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale. With the emergence of Isco and Marco Asensio and a potential move for Eden Hazard, Madrid fans have begun to turn on Bale who seemingly keeps getting rushed back from small injuries. Bale would add immense speed, a physical presence, a set piece threat and great end product which certainly make United even more threatening on the break. With De Gea seemingly keen on going back to Madrid, perhaps this is the best time to make a move for Bale.
Although he hasn’t set the world ablaze, Paul Pogba has certainly had a good season. After a tough transition period, Pogba has begun to show the qualities that prompted United to spend 89 million pounds on him in the first place. Any doubts about his quality should cease to exist after watching United without him in the team. However, for Pogba to truly thrive he must be given the freedom and not be pinned in a pivot. Ander Herrera has been nothing short of remarkable this season and has adapted well to the role Mourinho has given him. His immense defensive work has alleviated some pressure off of Pogba and he has shown he is willing to do the dirty work that is required for the team to succeed. United have not had such a player since Roy Keane and is unlikely that Mourinho ditches Herrera for next season. Instead, Mourinho should look to add another defensive presence in the midfield in the form of Tottenham’s Eric Dier or AS Monaco’s Fabinho. Both players are extremely good defensively and would form a wonderful partnership with Herrera that would make it difficult for any opposing team to break down. However, even more appealing is their technical ability and versatility. Dier can slot in as a CB while Fabinho can play as a RB and both can maraud forward and pick out a pass. Both players are still very young and would certainly improve the United midfield and allow Pogba to flourish and hit his seemingly infinite potential. However, the more likely option seems to be Fabinho as it is unlikely Levy and Tottenham will let the young Englishman go for a reasonable fee.
Moreover, Mourinho will likely keep Fellaini who can be used in late game situations and Juan Mata who can add some creativity and guile to the midfield. Michael Carrick, who has been a highly important figure for Manchester United over the years, will most likely find playing time hard to come by next season and it would not be surprising to see Timothy Fosu-Mensah also given playing time.
Arguably Mourinho’s best summer signing has been Eric Bailly. His display against Manchester City was one of the best performances by a United defender since the dominant days of Vidic and Ferdinand and summed up his excellent season. His absence in the Europa League final will be huge and is a chance for Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to prove their worth one last time. However, it is unlikely both stay and it would not be surprising to see them both depart due to repetitive injury problems. Moreover, although Marcos Rojo has rejuvenated himself at the CB position, his lengthy injury will probably force Mourinho to sign 1-2 new CB’s. Mourinho has shown excellent judgement in the CB position throughout his career and reports point toward Michael Keane and/or Victor Lindelof coming in. These inclusions with the integration of the promising youngster, Axel Tuanzebe, should give Mourinho excellent depth and coverage at the back. Another likely departure is Luke Shaw. Although Shaw was signed for big money, injuries have ravaged his United career. Although he is young and promising, it is not reasonable for Mourinho to put up with him and look for Mourinho to bring in a reliable young LB. Luckily for Mourinho, there is an abundance of proven young talent in the LB position. One of these players is another AS Monaco wonderkid, Benjamin Mendy. Mendy has been pivotal in Monaco’s season and his ability to bomb up and down the left flank and deliver excellent crosses consistently makes him an extremely enticing prospect for the Reds. Another option is Juventus’s Alex Sandro. Sandro has established himself as a world class LB and as of right now, is the second best left back in the world behind Real Madrid’s Marcelo. However, it is unlikely that the Old Lady are willing to part ways with the Brazilian so look for Mourinho to make Mendy a top target. On the right side, Valencia has proven himself to be the best RB in the PL this season. Although he is toward the tail end of his career, Valencia has shown little signs of slowing down and with a lack of options available, look for Valencia flying up and down the Old Trafford sideline next season.
One of the biggest questions going forward is the future of David De Gea. Had it not been for a bizarre fax machine, Los Blancos would have already had their Casillas heir. The men in white are back and following a mediocre season from Keylor Navas, they seem more hungrier for De Gea to move than ever before. The Spaniard has proved himself to be one of the top 3 keepers in the world and has single handedly kept United in many games over the past 3-4 years. Obviously keeping De Gea would be a big win but given Madrid’s willingness to offload a player in return or cough up big money, selling Spain’s number one may not be such a bad move. If De Gea does push for a move, United don’t have to fret over looking for a replacement. The best available pick would be Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak. However, if for some reason the move for Oblak falls through, United can look towards AC Milan’s and future Italy keeper, Gianluigi Donarumma. Given his contract troubles with AC Milan, the Italian side may be open to selling the young phenom this summer rather than letting him go for free next summer. Moreover, Donrumma shares the same agent as Mkhitaryan and Pogba which should make negotiations easier. No matter what happens, United should have a world class keeper between the sticks for next season.
You’re probably asking yourself right now, “Ok all that is great but where is Antoine Griezmann?” It is no secret that Mourinho is a big admirer of the Frenchman and his finishing, link up ability, and willingness to track back make him an excellent prospect. He has been liked to OT for almost a year now and it almost seems inevitable his transfer will happen. However, it would be wiser for Mourinho to go after a quality #9 and a goal scoring winger like Bale and give Pogba the advanced midfielder role rather than Griezmann. Moreover, the Frenchman’s price tag also should be considered. With all other additions that need to be made, it would be very unlikely that United spend an extra 80/90 million on the Atleti forward. There is no doubt that Griezmann would be a wonderful signing for United and his transfer may ultimately come to fruition, only time and Mourinho will tell.
One of the biggest problems this season has been United’s style of play in games against weaker sides at home and big teams away. When Mourinho was announced, the biggest fear amongst United fans was the style of play. Throughout the years, Mourinho has shown that he is prepared to play ugly and win rather than play beautiful and lose. While the tactic has certainly worked for him, United are a team built on playing exhilarating attacking football. Mourinho himself has reiterated this and tried to play an open game sometimes. However, it seems Mourinho doesn’t believe his current squad can play like this as and prefers his team sit back after they go up 1-0. If United continue to do this going forward, its hard to see the results changing regardless of who the club brings in. Moving on, away games against the top teams have been games many United fans would prefer to forget. Time and time again Mourinho has taken his team to the top sides in England and has played for a 0-0 draw while hoping United can hit on a counter. If Mourinho wants to win the title, he must certainly change his approach for the big games. The fear of losing has cost United too many wins and points and for future games this timid approach will only hinder the players and elicit more frustration. Mourinho has shown, most notably with his Real Madrid side, that he is capable of playing a exhilarating brand of football and I fully believe that bringing in another crop of players chosen by him will allow him to approach matches and have the Reds play the way United should.
The Europa League final will definitely be a season defining game and a win would set up United for one of the most exciting summers in recent times. Mourinho has certainly taken United in the right direction and should have all the tools needed to mount a formidable title challenge next season.